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Fit for purpose: The benefits of being active after brain injury

The benefits of being active

Making exercise accessible for brain injury survivors

In this feature, we explore some of the innovative ways in which Headway groups and branches are making exercise accessible.

Make sure you eat your five-a-day. Get plenty of exercise. Don’t drink too much. Messages encouraging us to live healthier lifestyles are everywhere these days – and understandably so. The benefits are clear and obvious, but while we can control what we eat and drink, is it always that easy to get regular exercise if you’re living with a brain injury?

One small step

The physical challenges after brain injury will be different for every brain injury survivor, and will vary depending on each stage of a person’s recovery.

For Lucy Thurlow, who was told she would be paralysed for the rest of her life, walking again was a distant dream – let alone doing any form of exercise.

In 2011, Lucy suffered a series of epileptic seizures that left her blind and unable to walk. She was also unable to swallow, while her ability to communicate was significantly impaired.

But with support from Headway Hertfordshire, and through pure determination, Lucy worked tirelessly to regain movement in her legs. Now she goes for assisted walks around three times a day, and also
takes part in keep fit classes.

“The best part about my recovery has been re-learning how to walk,” she said. “I love to walk everyday now, and will never again take such things for granted.”

In 2016, Lucy created her own 2.6 mile version of the famous 26.2 mile-long London Marathon, which she dubbed the ‘Lucy Marathon’. Displaying incredible will-power, Lucy completed the course over seven
days, raising thousands of pounds for Headway Hertfordshire in the process. Earlier this year she decided to challenge herself once again, this time walking three miles in 10 days.


Lucy said: “The whole thing gave me a buzz because it was so rewarding, especially knowing I had raised money to help other brain injury survivors along the way.

“To anyone else who is thinking about exercising I would say accept the challenge. If you are offered help, you should accept it.

“Also, you must not lose your temper and get frustrated when it’s difficult. Keep smiling.”

Lucy’s story is a strong reminder that each brain injury survivor has their own marathon to face, but through determination and with support it’s possible to achieve incredible feats.

Make a splash

Sarah Whitchurch, from Guernsey, also credits a passion for sport for helping her rehabilitation.

In 1997, when just 10 years old, Sarah fell ill with meningitis. As a result, she sustained a brain injury that left her wheelchair-bound with long-term partial paralysis in her limbs.

“I suffered short-term partial paralysis and for a long time I could only communicate through blinking,” said Sarah. “Even today, I still suffer from weakness in my limbs.”

“When I was finally discharged from hospital, I began a lengthy and very tiring process of rehabilitation. Eventually, I re-discovered my love of swimming and used my passion for the sport as an incentive to improve my movement.

“A daily challenge I faced – and still face today – is that I was unable to kick my legs and I suffered with limited dexterity in my hands.”

In 2005, Sarah started attending cognitive development sessions with Headway Guernsey, where she made great progress. And, having rekindled her passion for sport as part of her rehabilitation, she went on to win national swimming and cycling competitions.

Her incredible achievements also include completing marathons in her wheelchair, and becoming the first disabled swimmer to battle the intense cold to complete the Guernsey to Herm race, which involves swimming 6 km against strong tides in open water.

"I was much more confident physically and mentally.”

For many brain injury survivors, getting back on their feet can be tough. But Pippa Bateman found that becoming steady on her feet helped with every aspect of her recovery.

“I had mobility and balance problems,” she said. “I couldn’t read, I was massively fatigued. I lost my sense of taste and smell and couldn’t eat. I was depressed.”

Before her accident Pippa ran her own alternative therapies company called Holistic Health Team. One of the exercises she taught was Nordic Walking – cross country walks using walking poles.

When she was confident enough to once again leave the house, Pippa took her Nordic Walking poles with her to help her balance. She never looked back.

“My husband commented on how I was a different person when I came back from my first walk with my poles. I was much more confident physically and mentally.”

Over time Pippa found Nordic Walking improved her gait, her co-ordination and sense of well-being.

“When I go Nordic Walking I come back buzzing. The exercise releases natural endorphins which boost your mood. But I think there’s something special about the co-ordination of it. It gives me confidence."

Access for all

The incredible achievements of others can be inspirational. But you don’t have to be a record-breaker to reap the benefits of being active.

Many of Headway’s 130 groups and branches across the UK provide a range of accessible exercise activities and sports for people of all ages and abilities.

Seated Zumba

Zumba is an increasingly popular form of exercise that involves moving to the sound of energetic carnival music. Sounds fun – but perhaps daunting for those with limited mobility. Not so at Headway South Staffs, where all service users are able to enjoy the high energy activity thanks to the introduction of a new seated version of Zumba.

“The good thing about the class is it’s really inclusive,” said Mitchell Wakeman, the group’s support worker. “There are moves for people who can stand and walk, and moves for those who need to use a chair.”

Mitchell has seen a real improvement in the people who have been attending the classes for the past six months.

“We have brain injury survivors who had problems with co-ordination and struggled with their balance or those who could stand but leaned to one side.

“After taking the classes for around six months they improved dramatically.”

Paul Rowley, who developed a brain abscess in 2014, said: “It’s good exercise for a Monday morning, it blows the cobwebs out.

“I get a chance to chat to the instructor Victoria about fitness. I also do Pilates in the week and it’s great for my coordination and balance.”

Mitchell has found holding sessions on a Monday morning helps set everybody up for a good week ahead.

“When people arrive on Monday morning they might have had a bad week or be feeling stressed.

“The Zumba sessions tends to improve the mood in the room. Those who take part are more relaxed and ready to engage.”


Despite the ‘Strictly factor’, for some people dancing may not appeal. The Headway team in Northern Ireland was looking to run fun activity sessions that were more inclusive for all of their users – and stumbled across boccia. Similar to bowls, the sport is specifically designed for people with disabilities.

Players work as a team to throw balls as close to the ‘jack’ as possible, working together to strategically plan their shots. They must take their shot from a seated position, so wheelchair users are immediately on a level playing field with able-bodied players.

Around 12 players attend the Belfast sessions each fortnight and players take it in turns to play in teams of six.

Steve Derby, Headway’s outreach support co-ordinator for Northern Ireland, says playing a team sport has been really beneficial for those taking part.

“It encourages teamwork and communication,” he said. “The idea is you work with the team to figure out who has the best shot.

“Talking can be hard for some, but it gives them something to focus on and they have to communicate with one another.

“It also helps with co-ordination and balance; having to throw from a seated position has meant the guys have had to develop their own ways of throwing.”

Service user Mark Rooney said: “I like coming to boccia because it’s amazing craic. We’re all playing a sport where we’re sitting down. But we’re competitive and we shout just like you would in any other sport.

“I love the social side of it, I get to spend time with everyone and have a laugh while I play a sport.”

Fellow service user Chris Mooney, said: “What makes boccia great is that it’s such a simple game that anyone can pick up and it’s easy to take part in.

“We have guys in our boccia group who are in wheelchairs and guys who aren’t; everyone has just as much chance of winning because the game is about strategy and teamwork. I’ve been playing for about three years and I’m still improving.”

Disability cycling

Spending a sunny Sunday gently pedaling around the park is commonplace for members of Headway Hull and East Riding.

The group has a selection of specially adapted cycles for a range of disabilities, ensuring everyone has the opportunity to get involved, even people like Neil whose wheelchair can be locked onto the front of a bike, with another member providing the pedal power. Side-by-side bicycles provide another alternative for those who are unable to propel a standard bike.

For others like Shaun, who cannot ride an ordinary bike because of his balance problems and one-sided weakness, tricycles provide an opportunity to once again enjoy cycling.

Lesley Saunders, of Headway Hull and East Riding, said: “We thoroughly enjoy the fresh air and exercise together.

“Afterwards we find time for a chat and a coffee in the café, so it’s very much a social activity as well as a healthy one.”

Disability football

Headway Wearside offers service users the chance to play walking football at the University of Sunderland, where they play among other members of the community with differing disabilities.

Not only have the sessions helped improve the players’ mobility and balance, but by meeting other members of the local community they have broken down the barriers of social isolation.

Kim Hunter, Business and Community Development Officer at the Headway group, said: “We’re football mad up here in the North East. A lot of our guys are Sunderland fans and have season tickets. They have football in common and playing it brings them together.

“They have made some really close friendships. As well as playing football, they go out themselves on a Wednesday afternoon and play ten pin bowling.”

For Jimmy Dowell, the benefits of being active are abundantly clear.

“It’s been 15 years since my brain injury and I’ve just sat about,” he said. “Now I’m doing exercises and meeting lovely people. Playing football has given me my life back."


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Headway - the brain injury association is registered with the Charity Commission for England and Wales (Charity no. 1025852) and the Office of the Scottish Regulator (Charity no. SC 039992). Headway is a company limited by guarantee, registered in England no. 2346893.

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